Tis The Season, To Yank Something Up The Hill, And Build The Hunter’s Fire
Just in Time For Christmas Dinner.
Oh Joy To The World!
Man in all his forms has been dragging something along behind him since he first stood upright and made his first staggering steps toward the horizon. Sometimes, it was a big hunk of life sustaining meat just like this.
They say that modern man hunts to fulfill some relentless though mysterious primordial need. Perhaps it is a way to reconnect with mother nature, to feel the wind on our face and remember our true place in the world.
“The real work of men was hunting meat. The invention of agriculture was a giant step in the wrong direction, leading to serfdom, cities, and empire. From a race of hunters, artists, warriors, and tamers of horses, we degraded ourselves to what we are now: clerks, functionaries, laborers, entertainers, processors of information”. – Edward Abbey
“One does not hunt in order to kill, on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted…” – From “Meditations on Hunting”, By Ortega y Gasset
‘Tis a bold statement for sure, ’cause in the end, an elk is an elk is an elk, and will never go easily to ground. Anyone that would tell you differently simply has yet to be properly humiliated, and oh, let me tell you the ways. Yet, I am confident, resolute, patient even. You must be that way to be an elk hunter, lest you have a very short elk hunting career. And besides, you just never know what you may find over the next ridge before the sun hits the peaks.
It’s late August here in Western Colorado, with the opening day of archery season close at hand. Thanks to the wonders of game camera imagery I know that this particular bull elk has walked on the trail under my favorite sitting tree on at least four mornings in the last week. That’s about as patternable as a big elk is ever going to get under almost any circumstance, albeit briefly. He’s obviously been doing his job, and now it’s time for my recurve and heavy arrow to help me do mine.
My mind flashes with anticipation and future possibilities, and I can just about see my hands wrapped around those newly polished antlers. Can I take him…, will I kill him? So many variables, so little time, and so many potential could haves and should haves right around the corner. Left alone, we could really do it right, this bull and I, immersed in a contest of fates and the hunting of memories.
Only time can tell if we shall ever have our close up encounter. For he stands most tentatively on easily accessible public land, after all, and it appears that my once semi-secret big bull hideaway has been crashed by some other party goers. Say it ain’t so, but the boot tracks and other signs most clearly tell the tale.
Like so many good things in life that seem to come and go, my last, best elk hunting area has been discovered, and that’s almost never a good thing for one’s peace of mind and continued success. I’ve watched nervously as other hunters have probed the perimeters of my realm, praying that they would not unlock it’s secrets and realize just how good an area it was. Last year I was absolutely surrounded, and now, obviously, it’s only going to slide downhill from here. I would hate to give up on a once, truly great elk hunting spot, again. Truth is, I may never find another.
It’s just a tiny pocket of pre-rut heaven, an anomaly really, found somewhere below the towering vistas of the western horizons. The terrain doesn’t speak much of elk either, which is exactly why it has been overlooked. It only took me forty years of hard hunting and serious scouting to find it, and then only with a fortunate dose of immeasurable providence.
It’s also an area that is extremely vulnerable to any kind of hunting pressure. One boot track in the wrong place, one whiff of human scent, and this big boy will be gone like a giant whitetail in the fog and shimmering mist of a gray, midwestern winter.
The thought of another hunter pushing him off his patterns is troubling to say the least, and the next several days may find me anxious and sad. It’s like losing a best friend, though it hasn’t even happened yet. Most things in hunting cannot be controlled, and the where’s and when’s of hunter’s choice are certainly in the uncontrollable category. On the other hand, it’s exactly how things ought to be, because we all need that kind of freedom too.
That being said, I will get over it, and the game and game face will soon be on. I can’t begrudge anyone from wanting to experience just a little bit of what I have done and loved so much for so many years. Besides, even in the best of circumstance, I may never lay eyes upon this bull again, camera or not. Hunt on, I must, for the beauty of our bow & arrow journey lies in the belief that it just might happen, once again or for the first time, on this day or the next.
Of one thing I am sure. It’s no time to quit, for there is no quit in an elk, nor in most bowhunter’s I know. A bowman must always have faith in the arc of the shaft, and in the spirit of elk, forever. It will always be a wondrous and inspiring way to view the world.
“From our point of view the bull elk is a pitiless and unaffected creature, and he expects nothing of you that he would not expect of himself. He is a “game animal” with a lot of game, so much game in fact that he can create his own rules. There is no doubt that he believes strongly in the concept of equal opportunity too, for he will take on all comers with hardly a care in the world. Should you decide to enter his backyard and hunt him up, you can tread lightly and show little effort, like many, and experience small success, like most. Hunt him big, and you can peg the throttles until the rockets burn out.
He can take it. Can you? “ – Michael Patrick McCarty
“Something is only given in nature, never taken.” – Richard Nelson, The Island Within
READY OR NOT
The young whitetail buck bounds proudly into the field of newly planted winter wheat and stops, and I know that I must remember to take a breath. Just moments before it had magically appeared from the heavy shadows at field’s edge. I saw first its jet black nose, then it’s eyes, followed by searching ears, and horns.
For some mysterious reason I had been staring intently at this very spot amidst the tangle of heavy vines, the bright green leaves of sassafras trees, and the yellow of remnant persimmon fruit hung on bare branches. It is as if I already knew, somehow, that I would see a deer this morning, and was simply waiting for its arrival. It’s a huge moment when you are thirteen. Why it’s as big as the world.
Just before daylight I had wedged myself into the crotch of an old, dead tree on the more open side of a small, protected field. It was more than cold with a biting, mid November wind, but the tree was big, protecting, with thick, comforting limbs radiating from its base. It was like a fort, and it was great fun just to sit there, hidden, listening.
Morning in the eastern deer woods has a rhythm and cadence all its own. Once heard, it remains indelibly recorded on the heartbeat of your mind I can still hear the stirrings of squirrels and small creatures in the dry leaves and forest duff below, the twittering birds, the scornful proclamations of Blue Jays and wandering crows above. I miss it so.
I remember feeling that the buck knew I was there, would be there…watching. Perhaps he had seen a small, slow movement from me, or perhaps he just, …knew. Will he come? Even If he suspects nothing there is little reason for him to continue across an open field on a bright, sunny morning during gun season, with plenty of heavy cover in the trees of the wood lot behind and around him.
I wait. The buck hesitates for a brief time, an eternity, and then trots calmly and purposely along the edge of the trees towards me. I am paralyzed. Though mostly ready, I’ve not yet had time to assess the situation or remember my role in it. My feet are only about six feet from the ground, and I know that he will see me and swap ends quickly if I move too fast. Still, I feel that he knows I’m there and can not change his course, and can somehow see himself moving, thru my eyes, as he crosses in front of my stand.
It’s now or never, and in one motion I come from behind his track and start to swing my shotgun bead towards his shoulder. He stops as if on command, as if this is his part in the choreography of a primordial dance, and this is the selected spot to place his feet. His body is perfectly broadside, with his head turned towards me and up, his nose shining in the sky.
There is no sound, no mind, no time, just our breath frozen in the air as I settle behind the gun. He waits patiently, gracefully, and completely at peace with what is about to come his way. Both parties share something all-knowing yet incomprehensible, without judgement. It is agreed. We have done this before and may do so again, god willing.
I don’t remember pulling the trigger, yet It ends as it must if you are a hunter. A life taken. I am too young to comprehend the full meaning of the act, yet somehow I know there is something more. It is an end, perhaps a beginning, I do not know. The circle complete, we are bonded. It is a gift of the deer and it is sacred.
I pray I will not forget, both then, and now.
“No Sound. No Mind. No Time…A Hunter’s Mind” – Michael Patrick McCarty
*Few moments in my hunting life have held more importance, my first whitetail buck – a sleek 6 pointer. It was 1971, and I was Thirteen. A hunter, I am.
“As I reflect on the experiences of yesterday and today, I find an important lesson in them, viewed in the light of wisdom taken from the earth and shaped by generations of elders. Two deer came and gave choices to me. One deer I took and we will now share a single body. The other deer I touched and we will now share the moment. These events could be seen as opposites, but perhaps they are identical. Both are founded on the same principles, the same relationship, the same reciprocity. Both are the same kind of gift…Something is only given in nature, never taken.” – Richard Nelson, The Island Within, 1989
You might also like our post How It Ought To Be Here.
Today was a special day in my hunter’s world. It began like most Rocky Mountain winter days, but by evening I had acquired an elk for the freezer and two new hunting buddies.
Elk meat is a prized commodity in our household and one elk provides satisfying meals for many months. Hunting buddies, on the other hand…well, they are a gift of a lifetime. I am extremely fortunate to have several and I cherish them, but hey, I’m happy to add some others.
My new buddies just happen to be brothers, and like many good hunting companions they innocently possess unbridled enthusiasm, a refreshing ability to gaze upon everything around them as if for the first time, a natural wide-eyed curiosity, and the willingness to do anything required of them to make for a successful outing. Of course, like most people they have their own unique personalities and levels of hunting skill. In this case, they happen to be smaller than most and have some trouble in deep snow or rough country. They are named MacKenzie and Connor, and they are six and eight years old. They already love elk and elk country. In fact, they live in some of the best elk habitat that Colorado has to offer. But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself…
I have known these two since they were born, and I’ve known their father, Pat, for a quarter century or so. Pat and I have shared a lot of elk camps together, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for a lot of money, unless of course I could use it to go on more hunting trips with him. He is one of the finest hunters I know, and he is lucky to be blessed with a wife who understands his passion, and surely knows that she could not stop him anyway. Certainly it’s no wonder that “the boys” as we call them, take to the outdoors as naturally as elk bugle. Pat tells me that there was a time he could leave the house without them tugging at his coat tails, but he can’t really remember when that was. It’s just the way it should be, I say.
Call it a genetically inherited instinct, or say, a natural affinity for the wilds, these boys love the mountains and it is an uplifting thing to see. Pat has trained them right, of course, having brought them along whenever he could even when it meant carrying them. He’s patiently endured the myriad challenges presented by a partner who can’t tie his shoes or zipper his own jacket. He has always been the unwavering teacher in the face of emergency potty breaks, snarled fishing reels, and miscellaneous meltdowns. It’s just the way it ought to be, says he. I love and respect him more than ever for that.
Always happy to lend support over the years, I’ve done my share and have been quick to offer whatever advice a four-year old can comprehend. Mostly, I’ve never missed a opportunity to ask them an important question. Something like, “Hey Boys! – I just want to know one thing – Are you going to pack my elk? It became our personal joke and was always a great question to ask at parties, causing them to fly off with hysterical giggles and laughter and to repeat it to their young friends who do the same. It’s not often that you get a chance to train a group of small ones in the proper order of hunting priorities. After all, middle age now stares me squarely in the paunch, and frankly, I’m gonna need the help.
Today, we are wholeheartedly engaged in what can only be called a “meat hunt”. We know that there is a small herd of elk not far above the house, and it is late afternoon before everyone is gathered and we prepare to sneak up and over the ridge. The boys have geared up like old pros, which of course in many ways they are. They have watched a multitude of elk from their picture window, probably before they were interested in much else. They know the elk trails and the difference between a yearling and a big cow and where the herd is likely to run if they are spooked. Connor is next to me when we start off, and he does his best Indian imitation while pointing out tracks along the way. He shows me where he last saw the elk, and as we near the top of a small rise we see the oh so typical head up frontal view of a smart old cow. We’re busted, and I’m wheezing up through the oak brush and slippery rocks for position.
The first group of cows is moving and I wait, hoping for a better shot and about to lose my opportunity. Luckily, a mature cow is bringing up the rear. It’s not the easiest shot in the world, nor the toughest, but I’ve not been shooting well for a couple of seasons and I take some extra time to draw a bead. I squeeze the trigger and she drops in her tracks. “Nice shot Mike”, I hear from my six-year-old guide. Sweet words to be sure when your luck has been a little off for a little too long, and out of the mouths of babes at that.
We stand around the downed animal and I am truly grateful. Pat heads off to help another member in our party, and I am left alone with the two boys and a beautiful sunset in a clear, cold December sky. The boy’s seem quite content to hunker down in the snow and watch, and help. I become aware of the fading sky and the mountain peaks over their shoulders and think that they are exactly where they want to be. They wear these mountains like a warm woolen blanket, and there is room underneath for me, and for us all.
I stand before the elk and bow to the four directions and give thanks, party because it is something I have come to do to show respect, and partly for effect, as I know they are watching. What are you doing, they ask? Why did you look in that direction first? It’s obviously time for me to answer some questions.
I decide to quarter the cow for easier handling, and when my knife comes out they really become interested. Something about boy’s and knives, I guess. “Why are you doing it that way, they say?”. Where did the bullet hit? How many teeth does it have? How old is it? Mike, your elk tooth wedding ring is all bloody is it going to be O.K.?” And so on and so on.
I warn them several times to stay clear of my knife in case I slip, but they never miss an opportunity to touch or prod or examine in some way this elk. Their mother has sternly warned them to not ruin their cloths, and both their father and I reminded them more than once. For all the good it does. They want to be close, to smell its’ smell and lay their fingers on its teeth. Even in death, they want to become part of its life. These two are hunters, make no mistake, and I’m proud to be with them on this mountain at this moment in time when two young people chose to join us all in the adventure that we love.
They were quiet for a while, and I was working to beat the darkness. I saw their heads come up and they smiled and looked at each other like they had a thought at the same time. “Hey Mike!, they say proudly. You know what?…we’re gonna pack your elk”.
I stare at them for a moment, and then clandestinely wipe a bit of moisture out of the corner of one eye. It is not an easy maneuver to perform with a heavy backstrap in one hand and a sharp blade in the other.
“That’s right, I say. I’m sure glad you guys are here”.
Locked And Loaded. Photograph By Michael Patrick McCarty
Very few sounds heard in the wildlands of North America can completely capture your full and unmitigated attention like that unmistakable vibration of a rattlesnake in waiting. I located that sound recently while on a scouting trip for Pronghorn in Northwestern Colorado, emanating steadily from a clump of low hanging sage not very far from my feet. And to be honest, I can still hear it today, bouncing between my ears among the technicolor memories of my mind.
In this case the source of that infamous buzz was about two feet of Crotalus viridis, commonly known as the Prairie Rattlesnake. Yet no matter the name, or the size, of one thing there was no doubt. This snake meant business from the business end, and I wanted no part of that transaction. My guess is that it would have really preferred to skip the encounter too, though perfectly willing to do as it must. He is but a snake, after all.
Prairie Rattlesnakes are the most common Rattlesnake in Colorado, and they seem to be particularly prevalent in the areas that I frequent. This was the second live close encounter (others being found dead in the road) that I have had in as many years; the first I would have surely stepped on had it not been good enough to slither off of the trail when it sensed me coming. Before these interactions you could say that I had never worried too much about snakebite.
I do now!
The available literature seems to indicate that maximum length for a Prairie Rattlesnake in Colorado is about 3 1/2 feet, although there are mentions of much bigger snakes in the historical record. I did listen to a first hand account of a five foot or better snake killed in my hunting area just this summer, and I have no reason to doubt the source. Nobody really knows their population parameters and distributions. Fact is, there are a lot of rattlesnakes about the land, and apparently they can be…big.
Antelope hunters, and bowhunters in particular, should be well enough aware of that stark reality. Blinds on waterholes are often the preferred method of hunting with short range weapons. These locations are also preferred by the wildlife of the area, both large, and small. And snakes…
Temperatures, particularly at night, are warm; the little creatures, and the rattlesnakes that prey upon them, are active. Put it all together and it can easily spell some trouble of the bad kind for the bowhunter hurrying to the ambush point in the low light of early morning.
So, in summary, a quick tap of fangs may not kill you and dry bites are possible, but you can be fairly certain of one thing. It will be a more than unpleasant experience, and most likely a medically significant and tissue altering event. Antivenom and emergency treatment can be very expensive, resulting in what may be a financially devastating hospital bill at the end of the day, or week.
Best to avoid that possibility as much as you can. Be aware, snake aware, and ready.
You might also want to invest in a good pair of snake boots, or snake chaps, and a much brighter headlamp. Or perhaps even better, always let someone else go first, like your long time hunting partner.
You Can Read More About The Prairie Rattlesnake Here And Here
*Update September 28, 2019
It happened again, another rattlesnake close encounter, that is, and I can breathlessly report that it was no less attention grabbing than the first. For some reason which entirely escapes me, I am this year a first class rattlesnake attractor of the third kind. It is a badge of honor that I would much rather do without.
Early afternoon found me trudging down an abandoned two-track river road under an all-seeing, withering sun, en route to a promising looking catfish hole down in a deep, wild canyon.
Intent on my catfishing mission, a small whisper in the back of my mind alerted me to danger ahead as I approached a particularly tall patch of thick weeds covering the road. Call it a sixth sense, or perhaps my last encounter was still too fresh upon my mind, but everything about the place cried “snake!”.
I remember thinking that I was simply overreacting, for the chance of finding a rattlesnake camped out in this one small patch of forlorn vegetation in the middle of a vast, desolate landscape had to be very, very slim. It also suddenly hit me that in my haste to find a fish I had left a perfectly fine pair of snake chaps (for fang protection when it’s already too late) in the back of my truck, along with my camera (to document chance wildlife encounters so someone may believe me), and oh yes, my mostly unreliable but somewhat comforting cell phone in case I was ever bitten by a venomous creature in a land far, far from help (so you can throw it at the thing that bit you after it does not work).
A Black Widow Spider On the Move. As if Rattlesnakes Are Not Enough To Worry About! Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
So, as you might guess, I was particularly watchful of where I placed my feet along the trail, as I occasionally slapped the undergrowth ahead with the tip of my fishing rod.
And of course, you have probably surmised by now what was about to happen next. Staring down across the tops of my boots not very far from the end of my nose, I soon saw the plump, round body of a rather large snake stretched out at the base of the weed stalks, and then, at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, those infamous and unmistakable Prairie rattles.
Backing away slowly, quietly, I completed my retreat as he disappeared like a slithering apparition, and we will never know who was more happy about that. Human-Snake interactions can end rather badly for the snake too, after all. Where he went next only a rattler knows; where I was headed suddenly looked more distant and treacherous than I had pictured. But go I did, albeit ever more mindfully.
Most importantly, I had catfish to catch.
And thank God for guardian angels, and that I had enough sense, snake sense, to listen, and to follow just a little bit of my own advice. I shutter to think what would have happened, had I taken, just one more step.
…An elk bugle echoes down and around us in the half-light of early morning, as the towering walls of Dark Canyon take over the skyline. The high, whistling notes are nearly overcome by the falls above, the waters now airborne, flying from the cliffs towards Anthracite Creek. We catch our breath as we climb up the Devil’s Staircase, towards the great unknowns of the Ruby Range and the perils of the Ragged Mountains…
No, this is not the scene of some campy, dramatic flick, as mysterious and foreboding as it may sound. But it was the backdrop, with some poetic license included, of a monumental event in the big game hunting world. It is here, in 1899, that John Plute of Crested Butte, Colorado looked down his rifle barrel and laid down one of the largest set of elk antlers ever recorded.
He has quite a history, this bull, and I can only imagine that his story only survives because of luck and some divine providence. It is said that Mr. Plute was a good hunter, and he often traded wild game for the goods that he needed. More than likely, he was usually not too concerned about the size of a bull’s headgear. Perhaps, in this case, he was.
He was also known to be a colorful character. An inveterate bachelor, a miner, and a mountain man, he traded the head to the local saloon keeper in payment of an overdue bar bill. It later passed to the stepson of the saloon owner, who dragged it out of storage and submitted the first unofficial measurement of its antlers in 1955.
The formalities took a little longer yet, until it was officially recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club as the new World’s Record Elk in 1961, The final score came in at a jaw-dropping 442 3/8 points.
Photographs simply don’t convey the magnificence of this specimen, and you can barely fit it within the view finder anyway. In person it is very nearly overwhelming, and it takes some time to evaluate its true size as the eye struggles to gain perspective.
The rack at its greatest spread tapes at over 51 inches, with 7 points on one side and 8 points on the other. One antler has a basal circumference of over 12 inches, and two points are more than 25 inches long. When first mounted many years after the kill, it was fitted with the biggest elk cape to be found. It was probably not quite big enough.
I have been fortunate to hunt some of the nation’s top trophy areas, and I have come across some big bulls in my time. A 325″ class bull is bigger than many elk hunters will ever encounter; a 350″ elk will really get your attention. I have yet to ground check a Boone and Crockett class elk, though it has not been for lack of trying.
Once, on a Colorado bowhunt, I very nearly harvested a bull that most certainly was approaching that magical 400 point plateau. The memory of that guy can still keep me up at night, and I doubt that I will ever forget the sense of awe he installed within me. I can hardly imagine another 40 or 50 inches of bone on top of his skull.
The Plute bull was the World Record for over 30 years, and many thought that it would never be beaten. The glory days of elk hunting appeared to be long gone, after all, …or were they?
In 1995, the elk hunting world shook once more when an antler buyer purchased a head that he had seen in the back of a pickup truck. Killed by an Arizona cattle rancher in 1968 and never measured, it was eventually determined to be bigger than the bull of Crested Butte. Even then, it only beat out the existing world record by less than 1/2″ of total score.
Obviously, Mr. Plute never knew just how big his elk really was. It does not sound that it would have mattered much to him anyway, though I probably should not speak as if I know. Very little has been passed down about his everyday doings, or his end. Some have said that he died while breaking a spirited horse; others have said that no one really knows. Perhaps the truth of his ultimate fate is lost upon the winds and snow fields of the wild lands that he roamed, like many men of his era. In my way of thinking that only adds another layer to the legend, and to the mysterious nature of a place that once held a bull such as this.
It is impossible to know the full extent of this elk’s legacy. No doubt his genetics still warms the blood of his countless descendants, banked for the day when they can fully express their immeasurable potential. Who knows how many elk like him, have lived, and died, without being seen?
The head now hangs at The Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, which might seem an ignominious end to such an important animal. Perhaps it may not be the best place to honor him, but I do not get to make that kind of choice. For most, he is a curiosity and a fine tourist attraction, though I doubt that the uninitiated can grasp its true significance. For my part I am grateful for the opportunity to admire him in any way that I can.
The Dark Canyon of Anthracite Creek has yet to hit my eyes for real, but it will. I am drawn to it, curious too, and my hunter’s eye wants to see what it will see. Hunt there, I will, just to say that I did. I hope that John Plute would approve.
Most of all, I would like to think that a giant elk like him still roams those mountains. In my dreams I see him there, hanging back in the dark timber just out of reach of mortal men, suspended on the edge of time and the longing of hunter’s soul.
If you would like to read more about trophy elk and mule deer, we suggest that you acquire a copy of Colorado’s Biggest Bucks and Bulls, by Jack and Susan Reneau. We generally have a copy or two in stock. Feel free to Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a price quote and other details.
“I never lost a little fish. It was always the biggest fish I caught that got away.” – Eugene Field
A TROUT OF A LIFETIME – UNTIL NEXT TIME!
A big trout is an extraordinary creature – built for power, speed…and battle. Some, like this guy, are more than a match for any fisherman.
We all wish to catch a trout like this one day. If any of you already have, then you know that maybe, just maybe, there is another fish like this out there…deep below the surface…finning…watching…waiting – for one more cast…
May your waters be wild, and big!
And Oh, By The Way – You Might Want To Get A Larger Net…
Original Pencil Drawing Of a Brook Trout By Charlie Manus of Marble, Colorado
“The nice part about fishing all the time is that an angler can spare moments for just sitting and watching the water. These spells don’t even have to have a purpose, but it is hard not to discover some secrets during such interludes. The fisherman without a schedule doesn’t need to rush about, casting furiously in a hunt for every possible trout. For this reason, he usually catches more of them”. — Gary LaFontaine, Trout Flies: Proven Patterns
A moment of beauty is where you find it, all around. Today I saw it in this work of wildlife sculpture by Gene Adcock and Jeanie Renchard, found below the twin summits of Mount Sopris near Carbondale, Colorado.
“Golden Bears” Sculpture By Gene Adcock and Jeanie Renchard. Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty
“All but beauty will pass – beauty will never die. No, not even when the earth and the sun have died will beauty perish. It will live on in the stars.” – William Robinson Leigh, Frontiers of Enchantment, 1940
“The country knows. If you do wrong things to it, the whole country knows. It feels what’s happening to it. I guess everything is connected together somehow, under the ground.” – Lance Williams, Koyukon Elder, 1975
“When you see a new trail, or a footprint you do not know, follow it to the point of knowing.” – Uncheedah, The Grandmother of Ohiyesa
Animal signs and tracks have always fascinated me, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that a living, breathing creature just laid them down and might be standing just over the next rise. Tracks are a record of nature’s wanderings and little doings, scratched and scribed on mother earth’s own back. They are placed there, as new each time, for those who wish to follow and investigate.
Temporary and ephemeral, they sing with animal promise and life eternal, bursting of meanings far greater than their small impression would indicate. They speak of purpose and plan, reward and desire, and adventure for all.
Tracks lead, I must follow. I aspire to ponder the possibilities of their message, and to attempt to practice what they may wish to teach. I wish could read them better. Maybe I can decipher them in this lifetime. I am determined to try.
I am a particularly fond of elk, and I am a dedicated student of elk tracks. Their shape intrigues me, and I like the way they cut deeply into the ground as if searching for the planet’s center, releasing the earth’s rich, dark aroma to mingle with their heavy musk. There is nothing subtle about the way that an elk marches through life, churning and slinging dirt and mud while becoming even more solidly rooted to the ground. It grounds my wandering boots as well. They pull me deeper into the ground with each step. I feel freer, calmer, and more fully connected to my life.
Their tracks tell their story, and I gain insight and know the characters more intimately through the added layers of each successive chapter. It is a long and complex tale. I have trailed along wherever and whenever I could. Later, my mind wanders, and I am on the move again, reliving old trails and experiences even when my body is somewhere else.
The characters in this tale are many and varied, each with their own unique qualities, motivations, and point of view. I can read the developing plot on the ground, at my feet, and just ahead. Here are tracks large and small, first meandering slowly, then running. Some are evenly spaced and calm, some are random and hurried. Yearling elk lay them down, as do old dry cows, new-born calves, and antlered bulls small and large.
They document the every day struggles, their hopes, their fears, joys, and occasional sufferings. I can picture in my visions the upturned head of an alert mother, nostrils quivering and searching for unwanted and dangerous scents. Ahead of her, I see a battle-scarred old warrior bull, standing tall in its last footprint, bugling and aching for a fight. It’s all written upon the ground, in the signs of animals and tracks.
Tracks have led me to vibrantly green, sundappled forests so beautiful it was difficult not to cry. It was tempting to lie down there forever, quiet and unmoving, until my body turned to stone, left to weather and crack and fall upon the earth.
I stood again, to wind my way through sage covered flats, with pounding rain and fog so thick that one is forced to look only down, watching the rain drops from your hat land squarely in the elk track below. Shielding my eyes from stinging, wind-driven snowflakes, I have waded through the unbearable snows of a terrible winter to find a calf’s last struggles against barbed wire and fence, too high.
More than once I have explored an anxious trail of tracks patterned by a solitary elk, and observed the paw prints of a mountain lion, or a bear, on top. Moving on intently, I have found only piles of hair or a few shards of bone in the last impression, with no elk left to pursue.
Backtracking upon tracks I was stepping on, I have been confronted with the reality of mountain lion or bear tracks covering my tracks, in turn. Tracks have led me to the center of nowhere, and back again. On the way I found myself, staring back. I am always looking for the next track to chase, eager to discover where it may lead.
My life is surrounded by elk and their tracks. apparently, I’ve made sure it worked out that way, without fully realizing it. Tracks lead past my house on their way to hay fields below, and I often stand in them on my way to our garden. Even at work, I look for them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that they are often just yards away from my comfortable shoes.
I work as a security guard, and my “office” is a “shack” at the main entrance of a golf course, country club, and home development. The sprawling property is interspersed with large homes on small lots, with much open space, and for now, many vacant house lots. A river runs through it. Public lands are near and expansive. Elk and mule deer are a commonly seen, along with a variety of smaller animals, birds and waterfowl. I am a most fortunate person.
You might say I have a room with a view. Red rocky ridges, sparkling clear water, and manicured greenery wrap around and fill the big windows of the small building. To the south, Mt. Sopris looms above us and refuses to be ignored. Broad shouldered and solid, with a long, deep blanket of shimmering snow fields below her twin peaks, it is one of my favorite and most comforting friends. The Ute Indians revered her first, and named her “Mother Mountain”.
Somehow I feel that she is watching, and that she is caring and protective of the many beings down below. I look to her often, and wonder what she would have to say about our human doings. She already knows that all is not always well in paradise.
“Mother Mountain” has a grand view of the “eagle tree” on the property, and a section of the development has been declared off-limits to all activity in an effort to honor the pair of bald eagles that raise their young here every summer. It is a grandfather of all trees, a towering ponderosa with heavy, thick branches, perfectly placed on the bank of a sweeping curve in the shallow river.
The eagles have been raising their young here for decades, perhaps millennia, or more. They have seen a lot, these eagles. The place would not be the same without them and it is a credit to the developer and others who planned it.
In the spring and summer people talk of them and wish to see them. They call for the daily eagle report. They are famous, they are legend. Homeowners and club members can see them whenever they wish. Outsiders cannot. We must protect the eagles from disturbance, we say. To appease the general public, we occasionally host a coordinated observation tour to show everyone that all is well in eagle world. It’s the least we can do.
However, limited and brief access does not satisfy the public demand. Most of the excited, would be visitors arrive by vehicle unannounced, without appointment. They wish to watch the eagles and they want to see them very badly. They are curious about their eaglets and they can’t wait to take their picture. One of the parent’s may return with a freshly caught and wiggling trout to feed the young, and they want to encourage them on. For their own reasons they are humans who want to be part of something else, something wild.
Birders and eagle lovers can be very determined folks, and they do not like to be turned away. But we do, because we must, and we can. After all, it is private property, you see. Members only, I’m afraid.
The private in private property can define and expose some harsh realities. It means that something, in this case the eagles, belongs to someone else. They are not for you. When I deprive someone of the eagles, I know that it was not my idea and that I am only doing my job, but that does not make me feel any better. I must wonder, as I turn to Mt. Sopris and ask, what would “mother” say”?
My head is out of the office as much as it is in, and when I slide the door open to greet a guest I cannot help but look in the direction of the river and the eagle tree. Perhaps I can catch a glimpse of that distinctive white head flashing in the light of a low sun, as it soars calmly over the back of an elk on its return to the comfort of the family nest.
After sunset, the night belongs to the elk, particularly during the long, cold nights of winter. I often can hear them calling back and forth to each other, conversing in a language as old as time. They paw and crunch through the snow just out of range of approaching headlights. On moonlit nights I can spot them weaving around the trees near the building, a ghostly apparition that begs me to leave my confines and join them. Unobservable to the casual traveler and yet so close, it is our little secret, the elk and I.
During the worst days of our long winters, the elk congregate on the property to escape the heavy snows of the high country. Skiers on their way to Aspen, most of them apparently from elkless places, slam on their brakes and leave the highway. They can’t believe their eyes. They shower me with questions. Is that an elk? How many are there? Where did they go? How long will they be here? They want to see the elk, and they want to see them very badly. They need to see them. Why are the elk here, they ask? I do not know the answer to that last one, but I am glad they asked. That is the million dollar question, after all.
I want to grant the them access, because I love the fact that they are so completely enthralled with an animal that I love too. Instead, I must say no, and turn them away. It is that private property thing again, rising to rear its ugly head. The elk are standing on private property, I explain. It is a private subdivision and a private club. The message is clear. They are “our elk”, not yours. They may wander about on public land most of the year, but they are “our elk” now. They are not for you. I cannot let you past. I cannot accommodate your request.
Most of the time they look past me and through me as if I’m not there, eager for another elk sighting. They plead and they reason, hoping to gain some toehold to hang on to and work a crack to break my resolve. They cannot believe I am blocking their way, incredulous at my lack of compassion and understanding regarding their need. I stand uninvolved, professional, resolute. They do not know that I wish for them to see them too. I cannot let them see the inner workings of my conflicted mind. If I only could…If they only knew…
The west is not the west that I came to 35 years ago. More populated, yes, but different in ways apart from the addition of people. Attitudes have changed. Colorado has become more and more like…other places. It has never ceased to amaze me how people come here to escape the problems of the place they have come from – and then promptly try to change the new place back into the old place they just worked so hard to escape. Too often our stunning views become valued most for the picture through the picture window in the great room of the palatial house on the new hobby ranch estate.
Here, as in many areas throughout the west, the trophy houses perch like sentinels above the river, on guard against the boatman who pass on the public waters below. In Colorado only the navigable and flowing water is public; the river bottoms and shorelines are private. May the heavens part and jagged thunderbolts smite the poor, unwashed soul who touches the river bottom with the metal of boat or anchor, or wader covered foot. They are watching, and the fish policemen are but a moment away. I should know. I am one.
The fish, of course, belong to the public. The finny creatures are managed by people who work for a public wildlife management agency, which is funded with public funds, paid primarily by private citizens who purchase a public fishing license with their private dollars, which pays for the public fish managed by the public wildlife management agency. Yet, there seems to be some confusion over who owns the fish.
The private property proclamations and numerous no trespassing signs are placed strategically and obviously to remind the boatmen not to stop. The signs imply the desired message. You may pass but do not enter. Wet your lines and be on your way. The area is designated as catch and release, the sign says, so put our fish back too. Like the elk, and the eagle, they are “our fish”, and not for you. I blissfully fished on these river banks many, many times over the years, with the eagles over my shoulders. There were no signs or houses then. I quit fishing here, a lifetime ago. Somehow all of the joy has long since been squeezed out of these troubled waters.
I like my job well enough. Like many people I have too many bills to pay, a mortgage to service, and promises to keep. I must work, but the duty does not particularly suit me. I struggle with my inner wranglings, and find it difficult to relate to people on equal or near equal terms, in an effort to provide what they need. Mind reading and the decoding of a person’s unspoken and true desire is not one of my strong suits. Oh how I wish that it was.
On the other hand, my desire is clear. I would prefer to be glued to a hot track, or directly connected to a pulsating and surging fish. I want to be the eagle, to fly away, circling ever upward and screaming fiercely in a bold, blue sky. I do my best to smile. No one has ever asked my opinion about anything substantial. In the end, I am a glorified Walmart Greeter, waving contentedly like a trained and tethered circus monkey, guarding a lifestyle at my back that I could never attain financially, but would never chose if I could.
To be fair, many of the residents love the elk and respect and cherish the gift of wildlife around them. They wish to help much more than harm. Most of the rest are nice enough. Some of the others, not so much. Some of the not so nice have long since moved away. Selling out, they were eager to move on to the next better place and conquer new-found worlds. Godspeed. I wish them well.Still, innocents abound. Only recently, a woman stopped to talk to me on a chilly and uneventful evening. She wanted to tell me her story of a deer, closely reliving it as she spoke. It was standing on her drive as she left the house, passing very close to her driver side window as she drove away.
Se had my undivided attention, as I am happy to talk deer. I was happy that she was happy to talk about a deer. She was captured by the sight, describing the encounter with wide-eyed animation. Then she exclaimed, “scarrreeeeey!”. Scary, I thought. You were scared….of a deer. A pie eyed yearling doe, harmlessly chewing grass and ready to bound away at the slightest provocation. Did I hear correctly?
I stood speechless and dumbfounded, and I am sure it read on my face, though I tried to hide it. What could I say to this nice lady? How could I respond in a manner that would make any sense? My mind could not work fast enough to process the statement or understand all of its pregnant ramifications. We were two ships passing in the middle of the impenetrable black night, and our cargoes could not be interchanged at sea. I had no frame of reference to draw from, no common ground to reach for, nor stable platform to commiserate from. I could only offer a curious smile, left to cock my head, and ponder how anyone could be so tragically out of touch from the natural world.
It reminds me of a similar story, from a similar place, told to me several years ago by a security guard who had manned his lonely outpost for more than a decade. The gated community was unfenced and surrounded by tens of thousands of brush and forest and home to a variety of rocky mountain wildlife. The entry gate was not a security gate at all, consisting of one bar which could be raised or lowered by the guard. He told of a homeowner who called late one night to inquire if he had perhaps had a sighting on her cat, which had been missing for several days. He jotted down the information for his report, doing his best professional security guard imitation. Trying to help, he sadly and patiently informed her that, since the cat had been missing for an extended period of time, she might want to consider the possibility that the cat had been captured and killed by one of the area’s many coyotes. She grew quiet on the other end of the phone line, than disconnected. The guard felt bad that he had been the one to broach the subject of bad news.
A short time later, the woman called back to yell and scream expletives, and then added “How dare you let that coyote through the gate”. She demanded the phone number of his supervisor, which he promptly passed along without additional comment, not wishing to add any additional flame to the fire. He never forgot about the incident though, and laughed gleefully as he told it, still not quite believing himself that it was true.
He said he wished he had told her that he would now be sure to interrogate all coyotes arriving at the gate. By the way, this is the same man who tracked Ted Bundy, a noted serial killer, through the snow at night after he had escaped from the county courthouse in Aspen, but that’s another story.
Coyotes are bad actors as far as many people are concerned. They receive a lot of press in our neck of the woods, most of it not favorable to the coyote. Not long ago our security office received a complaint. A coyote had grabbed a small dog from an unfenced yard in full view of the owner. There was nothing they could do. The dog was not seen again, and it was a traumatizing occurence for all concerned, particularly the dog. apparently, there had been a report of a suspicious coyote submitted the previous month. The homeowner wanted to know why the security staff had not been on top of the situation. Why had we not done more to prevent the incident? Why, indeed? It was just being a coyote, and doing what a coyote does.
It can be said that gated communities have complex and conflicting issues all their own, mostly because they lack exactly what is most obviously missing – community, and the comforts and security of it. People often become isolated, separate, and disconnected from each other. Money only magnifies the distance between them and it cannot save you from yourself. A pile of currency may humor the fantasies and massage the ego, but in the end the burdens of wealth may make real things worse.
You cannot contain nor confine the natural world, no more than you can hold it out. You can try to hold her at bay and at arm’s length, but in the end fences and guards cannot accomplish the desired effect and will only delay the inevitable. Humans can deny their interconnectedness to nature, but that does not make it true.
I think about these things while on patrol. I can not help it. Perhaps I think too much, and read too much meaning into circumstance. I see a vacant lots with elk standing on them, and think about the homeowner who sent in a photographer to take a picture of his property. He thought it would be a great selling point to pass around to prospective buyers. I wonder if he had considered that once sold, and house built, there would be no room left for the elk to stand. I drive about, stop to rattle doorknobs, check windows, look for coyotes and other suspicious characters. What do I say when I find one? Will they listen? What would they like to tell me?
I wonder what other people see and why they see it. They see elk tracks on expensive turf, ripping away and tearing at their summer fun. They see elk chewing on expensive trees and ornamental shrubbery. They see a sales pitch, a paragraph and photos in a glossy brochure in a carefully crafted promotional campaign. They see a nuisance, or an asset, depending on the need. They see competition, and not cooperation. They see profit, but only for themselves. Elk are something they own and can do with what they choose.
I see an animal having more and more trouble finding solid ground on which to live. I see an animal searching for the critical winter range of a valley floor, wondering where it has gone. I see a field where tall grass once waved in the wind, now smothered over with choking and lifeless asphalt. I see an animal staring at a tall wire fence near the shoulder of a busy highway, dodging cars and trying to find a way to put its nose in the river for a drink of water.
In my mind’s eye I see a mystical creature walking in a frost covered autumn meadow. I see young elk calves frolicking and playing tag on the green grass of summer, some with light spots on their skin. I see hunting camps and friends, animated and laughing. I see tired men sweating under heavy loads of meat and horn, winded and worn out from a hard day, but energized. I see steaks sputtering on a hot aspen fire, with good, smoky whiskey and cold, clear, creek water to wash it down. I see a young boy, now a man, describing his first kill while beaming with a grin so wide that it fills the sky. I see a father standing behind a boy who is so proud that he can not speak, but says it all with one look. I see more than I can comprehend. I do not have the words. I see way too much, and maybe not nearly enough.
Some time ago I walked around to the back of an empty, imposing house and came upon the sight of elk tracks on the concrete patio and walkways of a protected, hidden yard. Tall evergreen trees surrounded us like a natural cathedral. It had just snowed, and the tracks stood out like a beacon in the dazzling sun.
The sight stopped me quite dead in my stride. It was as if I had walked squarely into the solid concrete walls of some plainly obvious yet unseen building, as a great hand with extended finger descended from heaven to point them out in quivering disgust.
Kneeling in the snow by a gleaming steel barbecue, I felt light-headed and unsure. The earth moved beneath me as I did my best to control my revulsion and rising anger. Why the full force of it hit me so hard that day and at that particular moment I do not know. But it was real, and it was painful.
There is something terribly striking about the placement of elk tracks on concrete. It is an assault on the sensibilities of common sense and a great festering wound upon all that is spirited and free. It screams of wrongness and wrong-headedness, and of cleverness driven past it’s acceptable limit. The tracks document a trail of horrible mistakes and destructive paths. It is a unconscionable sacrilege.
No man should have to witness it, nor bear it. No man should have to try. The snow will melt and the tracks will disappear, leaving behind them only the promise of what might have been. I can read meaning into most kinds of animal tracks, but no matter how hard I may try I can find no sign on the cruel and heartless soul of concrete walks and driveways. I am, and have always been, a hunter. I must have fresh tracks to follow.
At that moment I see through other eyes, from some other time. A hint of memory flashes and reveals this place as it looked long, long ago. I see the ancestors there, huddled in the mist beneath heavy robes of fur, watching, waiting. I see their spears and primitive weapons, eager to sink their sharpness into hide and flesh. I feel their footfalls and their labored breath heaving in their chest. I feel the spear’s blade upon my hand, at the razor’s edge of all things. They are but a heartbeat away. They walk upon sacred ground and I can see no concrete under their feet. They may wish to look you squarely in the eye and disagree with your opinion as to owns this place. They told me so themselves.
This I know. The earth is the most patient of all living beings. She measures time in a fashion quite incomprehensible to our limited and mortal minds. The putting greens of the once great golf course will soon vanish into the recovering landscape, reverting to more normal flora and natural grasses as tall as a man. The houses will fare badly in the coming storm and other elements, and will eventually succumb to leak and decay as they list and slide to their knees upon the welcoming ground. Even the unforgiving concrete will crack and crumble, to be pounded into sand by the hooves of countless four leggeds, then carried away effortlessly by the healing winds. The land cannot and will not be owned, only borrowed for a brief moment along with the nurturing grace of god.
We do not own the elk, the eagle or the fish. Left to their own devices, they will remain here long after we are gone. Yet, if we are not careful they will disappear on our watch, to die the death of a thousand cuts and little insults. Our race will leave behind only the foul memories of a petulant child. Our legacy will be defined by the actions of disrespectful tourists, scratching impetuously and carelessly atop an improbable blue ball as it hurdles and spins through the limitless universe. How can we be so unaware of the magic at our feet?
Mother Earth asks only that we treat her with reverence and respect, and she is happy to provide all that we need in return. “It’s not to late”, she whispers. Can you hear her? Her heart is our heart. It is our choice.
Either way, life on this planet will continue in one form or another, with or without the puzzling, and sometimes troubling beast, called human. I will follow her track until then.
“one of the best aspects of our community is that we have the freedom to control access” (anonymous homeowner). Categorized under the ever more popular category – “You can’t make this stuff up!’.
“You live in a place full of light bulbs and chrome and rare fillets and box top contests. But when you die, you die in a place of mountains and sky, earth and fire, stars and the sea.” – John D. MacDonald, All These Condemned.
*This unique collection of new nature essays forthrightly addresses the environmental conditions and concerns of the 1990s. The contributors include an anthropologist, a filmmaker, and several novelists and fly fishermen and women as well as established nature writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Nabhan, and Bill McKibben. Subjects range from hiking in Alaska to viniculture in France, and the tone and style vary from the Swiftian satire of Robert F. Jones to John Murray’s personal meditation and Wendell Berry’s passionate biblical rhetoric. Yet these diverse essays are bound by a single theme summed up succinctly by Mary Katherine Bateson: “Ethics follow efficacy.” Because we humans have become so many and so powerful, we must become environmentally responsible; we must reform our greedy, exploitative relationship to the natural world and learn to share the planet’s wealth with other species and future generations. – Joan S. Elbers
A Journal of Wild Game, Fighting Fish, and Grand Pursuit